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Japanese women cricketers aim to replicate Asian Games 2010's heroics

By Agence France-Presse | Updated:Fri, September 19, 2014 7:08pm

Chihiro Sakamoto's big-hitting is talked about glowingly in women's cricket circles.

Tokyo: Sep 14, 2014

Blood-thirsty samurai warriors once threatened to kill the game of cricket in Japan before a ball had been bowled in anger. Now the country's trail-blazing women cricketers boast an Asian Games bronze medal and even their own pint-sized answer to Kevin Pietersen.

Baseball may be Japan's most popular sport but cricket actually goes back further — in 1863 British merchants and naval officers played a tense match in Yokohama, revolvers tucked in trousers to protect them from rampaging assassins with orders to chop off their heads.

More than 150 years later, Japan's ladies head Asian Games to the in South Korea armed with their secret weapon in Chihiro Sakamoto, a hard-hitting former softball player with a wicked pull shot who biffs the ball around with the carefree abandon of England great Pietersen.

"I had absolutely no idea what cricket was at first," maverick left-hander Sakamoto said. "The first time the ball hit me I was like 'Ouch, okay that really hurts!' But I fell in love with cricket from the first day.

"It is still a bit scary when a bouncer smacks you on the helmet," added the 20-year-old with a giggle. "I bat at number three so there's quite a lot of pressure to score runs. My favourite shot is the pull shot. It's a bit like a softball shot so I can really put some welly into it."

Sakamoto, who made her Japan debut two years ago, is expected to play a key role at the Asian Games but, in true maverick style, has a tendency to throw her wicket away cheaply.

"Chihiro does have a bit of Kevin Pietersen about her," said Japan Cricket Association (JCA) chief executive officer Alex Miyaji. "You expect her to go out and make runs — or come back early. She doesn't mess about."

Nor did the Japanese shogun who ordered the slaying of all foreigners who refused to leave the country by June 25, 1863, as political tensions with Britain escalated in the wake of the brutal murder of an English merchant.

At a time when Britannia ruled the waves, the Brits tweaked the nose of fear, striding into bat with hidden revolvers and stiff upper lips, guarded by a small force armed with rifles -- just in case sword-wielding warriors on horseback suddenly appeared at mid-wicket.

Fortunately for the gentlemen on the green, samurai did not stop play but the game was clearly not for the faint-hearted.

"It is, I suppose, the only match on record in which the players had to be armed," wrote the future polar explorer Admiral Sir Albert Hastings Markham, who took part as a young lieutenant.

Japan's first cricket club was founded five years later by a Scottish tea merchant, despite the bad blood and threat of violence.

Japan's women will have considerably less to worry about at this month's Asian Games after a steep learning curve since the JCA formed in 1984, setting up its headquarters 70 kilometres (44 miles) north of Tokyo in the city of Sano, also famous for its ramen noodles.

"Japan played World Cup qualifiers in Holland in 2003 and got completely smashed by Ireland, West Indies, Pakistan and Scotland," said Miyaji. "They bowled 50 wides in a match or something ridiculous like that."

Once a curiosity to rival the Jamaican bobsled team, Japan's female cricketers made significant strides under the tutelage of former New Zealand international Katrina Keenan between 2007 and 2010, culminating in a gold medal at the East Asia-Pacific championship and a surprise bronze at the Asian Games four years ago.

"They definitely know their 'chinamen' from their 'googlies' now," added Miyaji, referring to cricketing terms for types of spin bowling. "Cricket used to be something totally alien to them, but not anymore."

Published:Sun, September 14, 2014 10:36am | Updated:Fri, September 19, 2014 7:08pm

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